Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why people like Chilean miners

Anyone following the news story about trapped Chilean miners may wonder what makes that particular story so popular when more important stories are ignored. Virgil Hawkins, author of Stealth Conflicts: How the World's Worst Violence Is Ignored, lists six factors that determine what world events are covered in the news.

- national/political interest
- geographic proximity/access
- ability to identify
- ability to sympathise
- simplicity
- sensationalism

National/political interest
There doesn't seem to be major political importance in the story, unless it fits some kind of environmentalist or anti-corporate narrative. We see relatively little debate about political consequences of this incident, bar the occasional suggestion that the incident has bolstered an internal sense of Chilean unity.

Geographic proximity/access
From Europe, Chile seems distant indeed, but Latin America is sometimes referred to as the "backyard" of the US. The mine itself is not far from the large town of CopiapĆ³.

Ability to identify
Spanish-speaking Chile is recognisable to most Westerners. The maze of sub-Saharan African countries, or the central Asian "-istan" countries are much less so.

Ability to sympathise
Chile is industralised and the miners are using high tech equipment to rescue their colleagues so the Chileans can seem culturally similar to readers in other high-tech societies. This is one of the strongest factors at play: the miners are seen as innocent victims so it is easy to sympathise with them and their families.

This is an exquisitely simple story. In 1992 The Simpsons ran an episode featuring Bart Simpson pretending to be a boy called Timmy O'Toole who was trapped down a well. In that case the locals rally around the trapped boy and Sting records a charity single to help out! So, for some reason, people being trapped underground makes other people sympathetic.

The story is not scandalous, except that the miners got caught in the first place. Rather it is a feel-good story, at least since the rescuers started removing the first miners.

Altogether the ability to identify and sympathise with the miners makes this a strong human interest story. This scene, of the father embracing his sobbing child after two months trapped underground is a real tear-jerker.

If organisations around the world want to draw attention to their causes, perhaps they need to study this. A handful of innocent, modern people escaping near-certain death to happy embraces will sell copy, where statistics about mass-rapes and genocides will not. That way your story can end up looking like this:

Instead of being relegated to just this:


  1. Chilean people are known to be very patriotic and unified. They are naturally happy and humble.

  2. And it's different. People become desensitized to hearing about violence and political unrest every single day. "Oh what was that? Another suicide bomb attack in some dusty middle eastern country you say! Political unrest in sub-Saharan Africa is it! What's new?!" People (or societies, including me Shane *muffled by fake cough*) become immune to these stories.

    A headline that grabs the imagination would be something like; "The middle east is on the path to peace and freedom today after it was revealed by aliens that there actually is no God!" Or "Kenyan militias, seeing the err in their ways, lay down their weapons and decide to make their living by opening a chain of haberdasheries across continental Africa!"

    I don't mean to be ridiculing the serious matters in certain parts of the world but people become immune to the old headlines. It would take something spectacular to get certain places back into the world consciousness. At the moment there is no sign of hope in some places.

    The Chilean story is unusual. It was filled with hope and now has a happy ending.

  3. Hehe, true David. A friend of mine worked on a project looking at "compassion fatigue", the tendency of ordinary people to grow weary of donating charity after disasters. Perhaps that is related to what you describe: people tire of negative and predictable news.

    Anonymous thanks for your comment. I'd like to visit Chile myself someday :)


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